Throughout the last couple centuries (in United States culture), there has been a strong double standard when it comes to men, women, and monogamy. Monogamy has applied only incidentally to men. It was fairly common for men to take mistresses in the first half of the 1900’s, though the practice was always looked down upon. The prostitution and stripping industries have always served men almost exclusively, and have significantly catered to men in relationships or marriages. Traditional religious forms of polygyny (usually mislabeled “polygamy”) have made this double standard explicit in marriage. Whether we are talking about fundamentalist Mormons or relatively recent West African immigrants, men in these arrangements can have multiple wives, but there is no talk of women having multiple husbands. Overall, while the culture at large has paid lip service to male monogamy, it has been more of an option than a requirement.
The situation for women is quite different. Monogamy itself can be traced in a direct line back to the early 1800’s, when marriages were arranged and women were essentially owned. Between that time and the 1960’s, there was very little in the way of recognized nonmonogamous outlets for women, short of adultery. Adultery was in many cases an offense punishable by death, in the form of “justifiable homicide”. Here’s an example of this from the Texas penal code of 1911 – note that only the husband was given permission to slay his wife’s paramour, not the other way around. While many individual women bucked the trend, including well-known artists and movie stars, they were the exceptions to the rule.
The monogamous double standard is a reflection of the general double standard involving sexuality. Notions like sexual purity, virginity, and reserve seem to attach most strongly to women, and monogamy works the same way. Up until relatively recently, monogamy was primarily for women. Even today, the double standard is alive and well, and monogamy is directed towards women much more than towards men.
It should be noted that this situation is changing. Monogamy is becoming more egalitarian as women have gained economic power, simultaneously giving women more freedom and restricting men more. We can see this in rates of extra-relationship affairs, which seem to occur among men at about one and a third times the rate they occur among women. We can see how monogamy has become more of a concern for men by reviewing the difference between the treatment of John F. Kennedy’s infidelities and Bill Clinton’s infidelity: the former was largely ignored, and the latter was grounds for impeachment.
It is in this environment of women’s economic ascension (which is nowhere near complete, but is a whole different world from forty years ago), that mixed-gender nonmonogamous communities have been thriving, including sex radicals, swinger groups, and polyamory.
The ideology of polyamory seems to be explicitly egalitarian, because it generally expects that both partners in a polyamorous relationship will have access to other lovers. Perhaps more importantly, women have been central in the creation of polyamorous ideology. Not only was the term coined by one or more women, but the first five books written about polyamory were all authored by women. The Ethical Slut, the one among these that is generally considered to be the bible of polyamory, was written by two women. Also, Loving More, the prime polyamory magazine, has been historically run by women. With this level of authorship by women, we can expect that polyamory is an ideology geared towards the desires of women.
The status of women in polyamory is not just a matter of ideology, however. While there are no statistics on this (to my knowledge), from my experience within polyamorous communities, it seems that women are just as likely to succeed in polyamory as men, however you may measure success (number of relationships, depth of relationships across partners, length of relationships, ability to manage multiple relationship situations). Poly women can and do participate fully in this form of nonmonogamy, whether that means going to sex parties, simultaneously dating multiple genders, having more than one husband, or what have you. Often they outstrip the men they are dating in this regard, and are supported by the community in doing so.
People inside poly communities are constantly asking what is new about polyamory as compared to earlier nonmonogamous movements, and as it turns out we are not doing very much that is new. But this ability of poly women to fully entertain nonmonogamy is in fact new. Which brings me to my main point:
Polyamory’s most radical contribution is that it gives women full access to nonmonogamy.
Many of my readers are going to have a problem with the word “most” in this statement, but bear with me. Polyamory’s central point is that it upends the status of monogamy as the primary relationship paradigm. As monogamy has historically obeyed a heavily gendered double standard, I expect that the primary effect of polyamory (in terms of power distribution) is that it finally drops the monogamous double standard.
I am not claiming here that polyamory is somehow free of sexism or this double standard. Plenty of men enter polyamory specifically entertaining a heavy double standard, and often try to set up controlled situations that are more to their benefit than the women they are dating. What is interesting is the fact that they mostly fail. The community gives them little support in these endeavors, and in fact often ridicules them. The constant jokes around Hot Bi Babes can be seen as one of these attacks, as the MFF closed triad is a fantasy staple among these men. In general, men who want certain things for themselves but are not willing to allow their partner(s) similar things, are advised to change their ways or leave the community. And usually they either change or leave. I have seen this happen again and again, both among my personal friends and in online forums.
The fact that women’s nonmonogamy is central to polyamory has a number of interesting effects:
- It puts polyamory in direct opposition to historical forms of mixed-gender nonmonogamy. Compared to polyamory, traditional religious polygyny is highly sexist. In modern swinger movements, women seem to have more personal choice and control than men. However, other common rules associated with swing parties (men must come with a woman, no sexual contact among men) make it clear that swing club setting is more geared towards the desires of men than women. Sex radical parties sometimes have these issues as well, even though (like swing parties) they are well-attended by women who definitely enjoy themselves. The primary criticism leveled against the free love movement of the 60’s is that it seemed to function mainly to convince women to follow sexual paths laid out by men.(Astute readers will have noticed that I have not mentioned open relationships. Open relationships are relatively egalitarian compared to these other movements, in my experience. It may be that open relationships started this move towards egalitarian nonmonogamy, and polyamory is just strengthening and continuing it in a new form.)
- Polyamory as a movement seems to spread faster among women than men in some communities. (Note that this does not mean there are more poly women than men total.) One place we can see this is among gay men and lesbians. Lesbian polyamory, while moving more slowly than polyamory among bi women, seems to be doing much better than polyamory among gay men, with more adherents and two books written. I expect that this is because gay men have a number of other nonmonogamous forms available, including open relationships, club culture, and leather culture.In general, polyamory has been very popular among bi women, kinky women, and pagan women. In particular, bi women seem to form the backbone of polyamory in my experience, much more so than bi men. The number of women joining polyamorous communities means that there is not that sense of “not enough women” that one gets in other mixed-gender nonmonogamous settings, particularly play parties.
- Polyamory’s biggest media successes seem to happen only when it is clear that women are equal partners in polyamory, usually because a woman with multiple male partners is profiled (perhaps among others). Two examples of this are: the polyamory episode of the Montel Williams show, and a recent article in a Florida paper. When journalists get ahold of poly situations which include the double standard, it is easy for them to portray polyamory in a bad light, as happened in this British TV show.This suggests an important media strategy for us: we should ensure that media exposure of polyamory foregrounds women who have multiple partners.
- Perhaps most importantly, the current surprisingly high credibility of polyamory depends on the status of women within polyamory. I have seen this repeatedly in discussions among people who are new to polyamory: their acceptance of polyamory often hinges on how women are treated. If they think that polyamory is yet another excuse for men to exert a double standard, they are turned off. (And many of them do think this despite the actual situation within polyamory, because nonmonogamy historically has been dictated by the desires of men.) If it can be made clear to them that women are significantly involved, they are impressed.
This brings me to my second crucial point. Despite everything I have said so far, there is no guarantee that polyamory will operate in a manner which empowers women. Polyamory is not necessarily feminist.
Currently it seems that the polyamory community is acting in the best interests of nonmonogamous women, but that is because of a number of conditions that are in the end not tightly tied to polyamory itself. Specifically, polyamory has been authored by women and the women who are or become polyamorous seem to have a feminist bent, perhaps because the communities that feed polyamory (queer, kinky, pagan, new age) seem to have the same bent. However, there is no guarantee that these factors will continue. Polyamorous ideology, while nominally egalitarian, is not specifically attached to the liberation of women. It can therefore be hijacked for distinctly anti-feminist ends.
This is a legitimate concern. I have already described how some men try to turn polyamory to their personal gain. There have also been a number of devout Christian (Protestant) couples/families who have come to the polyamorous community in search of a religiously based arrangement of one man and multiple sister-wives. Similarly, various Christian and Mormon websites and organizations have been borrowing the language and tactics of the polyamory, queer, and feminist movements.
While I firmly believe that people should be able to build their own family structures without interference by the government, I think we should all remember (and point out at every possible opportunity) that traditional religious polygyny is sexist. Let me say that one more time for emphasis. Traditional religious polygyny (aka “polygamy”) is sexist. It is blatantly, irredeemably sexist, because sexism is a basic rule of the relationship structure itself: men can have multiple wives but women cannot have multiple husbands. I will continue to understand it as sexist until the day I meet a Mormon woman who is in a community-sanctioned and religion-based marriage with multiple husbands.
I am opposed to any kind of alliance between polyamory activists and traditional polygyny activists, because there is no getting past this sexism. This may seem strange to you. After all, the polygyny and polyamory movements nominally have a number of goals in common. For example, if a polygyny court case ends up upending the ban on polygamy (which is deeply unlikely), polyamorists will definitely benefit. However, the cost to polyamory is too high. If the primary power upheaval of polyamory is the status of women within nonmonogamy, then allying with traditionally sexist forms of nonmonogamy will only hurt the polyamory movement, both in terms of credibility and actual community-building. Instead, I would rather see polyamory activists in that court case. They may even have a better chance of winning, as polygyny can easily be dismissed as an archaic throwback to a pre-feminist era.
While alliances with polygyny are a fairly obvious threat to the status of women within polyamory, they are not the only such problem. The culture at large will create pressure on polyamory to conform to well-understood (and sexist) forms of nonmonogamy. For example, when people of any gender first hear of polyamory, they will often imagine it as multiple girlfriends before considering the possibility of multiple boyfriends. This cultural pull towards sexism will manifest in a number of ways, such as the double standard I have described here, as well as reporters and writers making bad gender assumptions, and numerous couples on the endless quest for the Hot Bi Babe, and bad gender dynamics at play parties. To date, the polyamory community (especially poly women) have kept these issues largely in check. We all need to keep up a certain vigilance against creeping sexism in our nonmonogamy, and remember that the position of women is central to polyamory itself.